In conversation with Karan Mahajan on writing contemporary novels, memory, political correctness and a post-Trump US.
According to Karan Mahajan, “The one misperception about the novel is the idea that it is fundamentally based in reality”. The author, whose most recent novel, The Association of Small Bombs, is based in contemporary Delhi, was in conversation with Manu Joseph – another writer whose novels are based in current India – on a panel called ‘Writing Our Times’ at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival.
The conversation itself never seemed to take off – something that happens surprisingly often at JLF – but Mahajan’s brief thoughts on the difference between writing fiction on current concerns and journalism (“I actually, in great desperation, want to escape into fiction. I don’t have any desire to write news for example.”) or a novelist’s take versus a historian’s (“A novelist can operate outside time, provide analysis after the fact that a historian can’t do, but a novelist can’t do that as it’s happening.”) left me with a number of questions about how Mahajan approaches writing a novel.
Apart from his two novels, Mahajan also writes the occasional piece for the New Yorker. One of my favourites is one that came out last July – ‘My Struggle with American Small Talk‘ – right before Donald Trump rose into prominence as a real option for US president. The piece, which is about the pained ritual of chit-chatting with a barista as he gets his coffee each morning, makes a larger point about cultural differences and also ends on a positive note with Mahajan acknowledging, “I was beginning to assimilate. It felt good and didn’t seem fake anymore.” Here’s an excerpt:
American life is based on a reassurance that we like one another but won’t violate one another’s privacies. This makes it a land of small talk. Two people greet each other happily, with friendliness, but might know each other for years before venturing basic questions about each other’s backgrounds. The opposite is true of Indians. At least three people I’ve sat next to on planes to and from India have asked me, within minutes, how much I earn as a writer (only to turn away in disappointment when I tell them). In the East, I’ve heard it said, there’s intimacy without friendship; in the West, there’s friendship without intimacy.
So when I sat down to type up my questions for Mahajan (he’s not a fan of interviewing in person), I followed the multiple trails his comments and this piece had opened up for me.
You mentioned using fiction as an escape in your talk with Manu Joseph. Is there tension between writing fiction to escape and also writing about contemporary issues? If yeah, then how do you approach it? If not, then why do you think there isn’t one?
It isn’t so much an escape from the present as an attempt to focus intently on a subject or place or time that might, through indirection, reveal the present.
How do you approach writing a novel? Is there a lot of background research involved like news articles or other resources of that kind to help you form a coherent narrative beforehand?
Yes, I read obsessively, across genres and mediums. I follow chains of bibliographies deep into the library. I watch documentaries. I travel. I speak to many people. At this stage the story may just be an inkling. I’m looking for things that will get smeared on to my consciousness.
What would you say is the role of memory and imagination when it comes to writing something like your latest novel which is set in a contemporary place and addresses current concerns?
Most great novels come from memory. Memory is where the sifting, processing, and winnowing is done: without it, you’d face an endless expanse of novelistic possibilities. So, for example, while none of The Association of Small Bombs is autobiographical, the sense of place comes from memory, adding credibility and depth to the narrative.
In your chat with Manu Joseph, you commented on the conflation between the individual and the novel in the West. But you ended up writing something entirely different. Could you expand on the differences between how you conceptualise your narrative voice compared to the individual focused one that’s pretty prevalent in a lot of English-language novels?
Each novel is different, but I’ve found that one generally comes to a new form when one has tried and failed to employ the existing forms. So I can’t say I conceptualised the form ahead of time. It came out of a need to speak honestly and with minimum obfuscation, and the traditional individual-centric form didn’t allow it.
Sort of continuing on that train, many authors, most recently Paul Beatty at JLF, have spoken about trying to write against stereotypes. Have you also encountered a South Asian stereotype in your dealings with editors and publishers? Is this something you consciously try to address in your writing?
I do feel that South Asian writing is overrun by stereotypes; my solution is to write honestly about the type of people I encountered growing up in India. As for editors, I’ve been lucky to have a good experience so far – in the US, the UK and in India.
Referring to Beatty again, he’s spoken out against labels like ‘political correctness’ saying he doesn’t quite know what they mean. Whereas you spoke out in favour of it. Given the current political context, what does political correctness mean to you?
I should say first that I think “political correctness” is a dead phrase and one that is mainly bandied about by its opponents. What you’re saying, really, is that you don’t want the majority to define consensus-reality. A majority race in one country could easily decide, for example, that “Indians are smelly.” Who can argue with them, especially if they really believe this is true? “Political correctness” is a check on the power of the majority.
Obviously, I find it silly when political correctness is deployed in a petty way, and I do believe it has no place in fiction. Fiction should be a space of utter fearlessness.
In your piece on American small talk for the New Yorker last year, you referred to the feeling/signs of starting to assimilate into American society. The piece came right before the ‘rise of Trump’ so I was wondering if the changing socio-political rhetoric in the US has altered your sense of belonging in the US/made you feel differently about splitting your life between India and the US?
It’s too early to say – my position on both continents has always felt tenuous and unstable. But I don’t think this is the time to flee America; it would play into the hands of what someone like Trump wants, which is: utter polarisation.